Just over a decade ago, Australia's second largest city seemed consigned to a rust-belt decline. Now, as Jefferson Penberthy writes, all trends are being reversed by a $15bn revival that is showing the way to the world.

Melbourne renaissance man Steve Vizard calls the city's boom "an explosion of ideas", reflected in part by innovative skyscraper designs and great new public buildings. The well-regarded American alternative lifestyle magazine Utne Reader has hailed the city's civic enlightenment, recently listing Melbourne as one of its seven urban world wonders: "The hippest city in the southern hemisphere."Hyperbole yes, but Victorian Planning Minister Mary Delahunty enthuses, too, over a generational change in living patterns that is bringing thousands of young professionals, students and affluent retirees flocking to the city life.

It's hardly surprising, with its shopping, restaurants, buzzing laneway cafes and trendy singles bars hidden away up alleyways, places like Honky Tonks, where Neighbours now seems to meet Seinfeld, and the De Biers bar which promotes its Friday night sessions as Sex In The City.

Melbourne's CBD residential population alone has increased almost tenfold in 10 years (to a neat 10,000), making it one of the six fastest-growing postcodes in Australia. Within a few years, the new riverside precincts at Southbank and Docklands will treble the central city's permanent population, and more than double the size of the traditional "Golden Mile".

These things, along with a historic southward reversal of interstate migration trends, soaring property values, and projects adding up to $15bn, are vital life signs. The weeds that grew up between the cracks of the early-1990s recession are long gone. A city once consigned to a rust-belt decline and a gloom to rival the English North, Melbourne's sense of revival is palpable.

If this seems to pose a new challenge to its capital city rivals, Bernard Salt, management firm KPMG's demographic chartist for the property industry and author of a best-selling book, The Big Shift, says the Manhattanisation of Melbourne is only the most dramatic manifestation of trends taking place from Sydney to Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. Proportionally, inner-Sydney's growth has had less impact only because it was part-Upper East Side already and priced out in some ways. Our Manhattans may become childless enclaves of the rich, but Melbourne is now doing it in a more comprehensive style and Salt says this is where the new "momentum"is coming from.

But hold on. Peruse projections of some of the garishly coloured and odd-shaped new buildings now rising around Docklands - the vast project that will eventually re-orient the city's face towards yacht basins and bridges at the Yarra's mouth - and they look a little like Acapulco-on-Tyne. This is a serious city and if it is a serious boom we are talking about here, folks, let's get some things straight. Great climates do not make great cities - the "St Petersburg Principle"- and Melbourne's interior charms probably no longer require a meteorological sense of denial from developers holding out hopes for global warming.

When Utne Reader put Melbourne on its enlightened cities list last December, editor Jay Walljasper cited its ber-chic combination of old and new architecture, migrant communities and Australia's best eating. The town's burghers have long recognised that this is a city that must try harder to compensate for its flat lack of natural attractions and landmarks. Which it does - maintaining elegant streetscapes, quality building stock and an effort centred on the relentless major events program that Vizard now heads. The former film and television entrepreneur calls this Melbourne's "calendar landscape", bringing forth sporting spectaculars, comedy, film and food festivals, major art exhibitions, and performing arts productions without pause.

A take from early autumn: in the Birrarung Marr, a great sun-dappled new city park along the Yarra where a road (Batman Avenue) once ran, 1000 people are sitting down to "The World's Longest Lunch". It is the fully served set-piece for the annual wine and food festival. For St Kilda engineering consultant Colin Fryer and his wife Bev, a university administrator, it is also the pice de resistance in their sight-seeing campaign for two British house guests, Phil and Pauline Anderson from the market town of St Albans, north of London. The mood is buoyant, the visitors impressed. Sitting at the same table but perhaps half a kilometre away are Luisa Tabacco, a Carlton resident just back from overseas, and friends Mike Reed and his partner Madelene Alford, who run a post-production film editing company. While the Fryers are seeing Melbourne anew through the eyes of their visitors, the others have become tourists in their own city. Says Reed: "Often now I just go into the city cafes in Block Place to soak up the atmosphere, or trundle around in a tram to catch up on everything that's going on."

In the new park, however, the diners can taste it all: a 360-degree sweep around the entree runs from the $450m new Federation Square complex to the gleaming corporate towers of the eastern skyline rising above a grassy knoll. Beyond these, the city's cluster of behemothic sports stadiums - the reconstructed MCG, the tennis centre and Vodafone Arena - form a cantilevered bookend to one curve of the river, rolling past the botanic gardens and the white wedding cake of Government House on the other side. Scullers skim through the bottle green waters towards Princes Bridge and the St Kilda Road Arts Centre complex, with the new towers of Southbank merging into the peaks of the western skyline, where Flinders Street runs back to the square. The setting is both sylvan and exciting.

While familiarity can diminish the aura of some cities, it is the proximity of these facilities that have long had Melbourne listed as one of the world's most liveable capitals - a place that is both easy to live in and almost uniquely easy to get out of, to the hills and encircling wine regions.

Incidentally, Melbourne's newer European-style trams do not trundle, but glide. On a low-floor Citadis 300 cruising over Princes Bridge, former Sydneysider Paul Vout listens with wry amusement as a cluster of schoolboys slag the textured three-dimensional jigsaw of Federation Square, Melbourne's most contentious new public landmark. Vout is a thirtysomething lawyer with a theatrical bent - within a year of arriving from a five-year law firm posting in China, he had formed his own part-time production company and staged Kiss of the Spider Woman at Chapel on Chapel, and Terrence McNally's contentious gay biblical play Corpus Christi for the Mid-Summa Festival in the city. He believes the Federation complex to be at the cutting edge of new design practice - "one of the world's great post-modern buildings".

This month packers began moving the National Gallery of Victoria's Australian art collection into the Ian Potter Centre there, and director Gerard Vaughan has had the NGV's painting collection revalued at $3bn. After touring the new Australian gallery last month, global diplomat Richard Butler described it as the most significant new art space in the world. The overall complex is central to the rush of major developments now taking place in the city and it will soon provide a startling plaza vista across to Southbank where the sculptured slimline form of Nonda Katsalidis's 88-level Eureka Tower, "the world's tallest residential building", and the 60-level Freshwater Place are about to rise, counterpointing St Paul's Cathedral on the other side.

Reality Check One: Early July. After weeks of alternating weather comes the bleakest of mid-winter days. Overnight gales have given way to driving rain and inclined figures with inverted umbrellas are herded across Flinders Street into the famous bluestone laneways. For 15 years, Melbourne City Council has been striving to transform the 250 laneways that it owns in the city, providing services to turn them into intimate tours of pavement dining, tiny coffee and specialty shops and bars - a zig-zagging European inner world behind the Presbyterian formality of Robert Hoddle's square CBD grid.

What will one find now, in the depths of mid-winter? A warm fug of Lavazza and Genovese roasts accentuated by blazing gas haloes heat the air around the dining umbrellas, where diners are largely sheltered by the baroque facades of the inner laneway buildings. All along narrow Degraves Street, Centre Way and across Collins Street into the Block Arcade, where a harpist plucks away on a pedestal, the laneways are buzzing. In the packed 50m of Block Place, petulant baristi are working the levers at the Cafe Segovia, Cafe Mio, Brown Sugar, Cafe Duomo and Cafe Contrile. One soon learns there is a competitive circle of second- and third-generation coffee cowboys here. All owe some debt to the pioneering efforts of Giancarlo Giusti and Giancarlo Capriole of Carlton, the Pellegrini Brothers and Florentino up in Bourke Street - the patriarchs who introduced the culture of continental coffee to the city in the 1950s.

In June 1992, something little-noticed but extraordinary happened in Melbourne. After 101 continuous years of bleeding its inner-urban population to the suburbs, a minuscule turnaround occurred. By then no less than 77% of Melbourne homeowners lived on quarter-acre blocks in separate freestanding houses (the Brisbane figure was 83%, Perth 78%, Sydney 66%) and this oil-fuelled trend had created the bland suburban sprawls that defined Australian culture and character. The London detached housing figure was 5%, and as Salt points out, probably no big city in the world was as relentlessly suburban as Melbourne. The city's U-turn has gathered pace with the demand for a more vibrant life from educated young Generation X-ers, now being followed by affluent parents left alone, and older Italians pining for the piazza.

For decades it seemed like the solitary resident of the Melbourne CBD was the tireless international socialite Captain Peter Janson, a bearded Wodehousian figure in a brocaded red velvet smoking jacket. A one-time touring car racer and fox-hunting friend of Prince Charles, Janson was quoted extensively in Time magazine on the occasion of Princess Diana's unfortunate car wreck. In a somewhat puzzled and derisory way, his living arrangements - first under a baroque tower in the old Federal Hotel and then at the Windsor - had long fascinated the Sunday papers, but attempts to persuade his Establishment friends in Toorak and South Yarra to join him in town had fallen on deaf ears. One accepts an invitation to his current pied terre, a six-storey bluestone bond store in a lane behind the Rialto, with curiosity. It's drinks for all at 6.30pm, so there is just one basic question. How does it feel to have neighbours? "Well, I think it's fantastic,"says Janson, with the anachronistic air of one who has waited too long, but enjoyed his exclusivity.

Reality Check Two: In some ingrained way, it remains impossible to write about Melbourne without reference to Australia's single greatest asset, the city of Sydney. The 2000 Olympics symbolically crowned a decade of tertiary economic shift to consolidate its position as Australia's premier globalised city, the headquarters to 54 of the country's top 100 companies, to Melbourne's 33.

An organisation called the Globalisation and World Cities Study group provides an interesting indicator on where Australia's main capitals rank on the totem pole of world cities. Using airport arrivals and a range of other economic activity criteria, the group has divided 55 top international cities into Alpha, Beta, Gamma rankings, also identifying a large fourth grouping of cities which are beginning to acquire global characteristics.

Neither Sydney nor Melbourne features in its Alpha ranking of the top 10 "full-service world cities"(which are London, New York, Paris and Tokyo, closely followed by Chicago, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Milan and Singapore). Sydney is nominated at the head of the second Beta group of "major world cities", equal with San Francisco, Toronto and Zurich. Melbourne stands equal with 15 other cities at the top of the third, Gamma or "minor world cities"grouping.

Kevin O'Connor, an associate professor at Melbourne University involved in this research, now believes the criteria used to judge the concentration of globalisation effects may be too narrow anyway. He points to local expertise and the globalisation of many of Melbourne's "old economy"industries, citing wine and beer, car components, food and dairy products, and mining management as examples. Another, mentioned by Vizard, is the local film industry. While Sydney's Fox Studios has given it a domination in amorphous big budget trans-Pacific productions, it is the creative pulse of Melbourne producing many of Australia's best film and television productions.

A potential tweak also involves immigration. Sydney takes about a third of the country's immigrants, and is rapidly becoming its most Asianised and Middle Eastern megalopolis, while Melbourne retains its strong traditional attraction to Italians and Greeks. A change in the prospective growth outlook has arisen, however, with NSW Premier Bob Carr's environmental concern that Sydney is approaching the limits of its population growth. It is now the Bracks government in Victoria, and Melbourne-based federal politicians like Treasurer Peter Costello and Opposition Leader Simon Crean providing leadership in the drive for a stronger immigration program and a defined population policy - which may again close the gap between our two largest cities.

Their rivalry, often seen as petty, is probably healthy. Melbourne may never match the triumph of the 2000 Olympics, but it is now focused on the fact it will present to a third of the world at the Commonwealth Games in four years. The rain has stopped. The Long Lunch was not a one-off: thousands are dining outdoors every night at half a dozen inner-urban eating strips, each with its own separate character, and feeding energy to the core. Come 2006, Melbourne's face will be stunning.

Source: NineMSN

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